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Sex, lies and digital video
Atlanta-born director stages 'Full Frontal' attack on reality
By BOB LONGINO
(Atlanta Journal Constitution, July 28, 2002)

Ozzy Osbourne owes a lot to movie director Steven Soderbergh.

Before Soderbergh's 1989 indie groundbreaker "sex, lies, and videotape," reality television was more a fascination of the egghead fringe. There was PBS' "An American Family," with the divorce-erupting, gay-revealing Loud clan, and comic Albert Brooks' "Real Life," an often bizarre spoof that had guys with large cameras strapped atop their heads dogging the characters' every move.

"Sex" might not have been a reality show, but its voyeuristic, taped character confessionals about sex, anger and personality quirks were a somber precursor of much of MTV's "The Real World," which debuted three short years after Soderbergh's movie became a mainstream media phenomenon.

"I'm not so sure about Ozzy," a humble Soderbergh says of his early film's possible influence on "the Dad" of MTV's "The Osbournes." "I know I am responsible for Anna Nicole Smith," he jokes about the Playboy playmate turned reality-show bimbo.

The born-in-Atlanta Soderbergh is a reality TV junkie. The 39-year-old director digs the hard-core ones: "Cops," "American Justice," Dick Wolf's "Law & Order" franchise "Crime & Punishment." Can't get enough of them.

Which brings us to Soderbergh's newest film, the often funny, thoroughly experimental, faux-reality "Full Frontal," a sort of sequel to "sex" that could accurately be dubbed "sex, lies, and digital video." Opening Friday at Phipps Plaza and Kennesaw's Barrett Commons 24, the R-rated "Frontal" features an ensemble cast (among its many stars are Julia Roberts, Blair Underwood, David Hyde Pierce, Catherine Keener, David Duchovny and Brad Pitt). The people they play have nothing to do with the original "sex" characters. The film is part wry spoof of a mainstream Hollywood romance and part dizzy spin on an indie relationship flick. It includes several moviemaking in-jokes and, despite the title, contains very little nudity.

A 'Cops' obsession

In a single day in movie-mad Los Angeles, the "Frontal" characters live out their harried lives and expose their inner quirks and demons. It's a world of the Internet and cellphones, road rage and hashish brownies. Where everybody wants to know your porno name (in some cases, it's your middle name paired with your pet's moniker). Where you could lose your magazine job for sipping beer from a glass instead of drinking it from a bottle. Sex is in it, too. They talk about it, fret over it and, a couple of times, simply do it.

It's pretty much shaped as a movie within a movie within a movie, and one that, in the vein of Soderbergh's Oscar-winning "Traffic," has him operating as both director and on-the-go cinematographer. He shot part of the movie on film and the rest with an indie-hip, hand-held mini-digital camera.

"This whole movie is me working out my 'Cops' obsession," Soderbergh says. "It's a normal movie, but like 'Cops.' You know -- chasing the characters around."

Traditional Julia Roberts fans will probably be agog.

Filmed in 18 days for $2 million ("sex" was made in 30 days for $1.2 million), "Frontal" has more in common with the experimental works of Mike Figgis (the digitally filmed, real-time, split-screen "Timecode" and the art-film-gone-mad "Hotel") than with any of Soderbergh's more mainstream hits. "Erin Brockovich," his twist on the typical "chick flick," it ain't. And it's the opposite of his glossy "Ocean's Eleven."

"This is more of a complicated, challenging film" than "sex, lies, and videotape," Soderbergh says. "It has a lot more going on and is a lot more demanding on the viewer. That's a reflection of my having made films in between. I can ask more of an audience."

"Frontal's" screenwriter, Coleman Hough, fully believes that mainstream audiences will be shocked.

"If they don't like it, they can walk out," Hough says. "I think we've become so formula-oriented. It's almost like a baby feeding from the breast: We don't feed from the breast anymore, we're given formula, and if anything strays from that formula, we spit it out, we cry, we burp, we can't deal with the breast anymore."

A world converging

Soderbergh says he's curious to find out whether the public will buy a non-mainstream movie that features ultra-mainstream stars.

"Will these actors mitigate this kind of aesthetic? We are about to find out," he says. "I've been trying to get people not to [try to] figure this movie all out. My experience in life is that things don't always make sense."

The point, however, is for moviegoers to explore relationships conveyed in different ways by both Hollywood and independent films.

"What constitutes real?" the director wonders. "And why do you accept one style more than another when they are both lies?"

In a way, "Full Frontal" came to be because Soderbergh wished he could redo "sex, lies, and videotape," which won the Cannes Film Festival's top honors, starred James Spader and Andie MacDowell and revolved around four people, their deceptions and one man's fetish for interviewing women on videotape talking about sex.

"This grew out of that idea, because I realized that I would do it very differently," Soderbergh says. "Even if you gave me that same script, this is more the form it would take."

It's more of an enigma. Faster. More complicated. And, ultimately, more distressed.

Life just moves faster than it did 13 years ago in "sex, lies, and videotape."

"And we'll be sicker still 13 years from now," Soderbergh says. "The world is converging toward some sort of critical point. There are too many things happening to process. Life is more complicated than it was even a year ago. And it's not going to stop."

As even a shirtless Ozzy Osbourne said to his family while an MTV camera focused in on every movement of his tattooed self: "I love you all. I love you more than life itself. But you're all [expletive] mad."

 


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